Understanding Yang Gang

Until Andrew Yang, few, if any, candidates were talking about the rise of automation, spiraling birth rates, and historic rates of addiction and mental illness. His first appearances such as those on Sam Harris’ podcast didn’t generate much buzz. At that point, he was among the unlikeliest of candidates for the Democratic nomination. Like many obscure figures before him, his appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience caused a massive boost of public awareness. But it isn’t necessarily the Democratic base rallying around him, which is far too busy with the politics of intersectionality. That much is to be expected when a huge number of people who discover you come from Joe’s much more centrist podcast. It’s those who have a vague sense that these issues are on the horizon, many of whom happen to be on the right.

That a great number of those curious in the candidacy of Andrew Yang aren’t on the left might come as a surprise to casual onlookers. After all, his single-issue mission of a universal basic income sounds a lot more like socialist redistributionism rather than the blind allegiance to free markets that overtook the right following the Reagan Revolution.

Which more or less brings us to the rise of the #YangGang meme’s newfound virality, and its connected meme of Potato Trump. Yang is riding a wave similar to that of Tucker Carlson’s following his debate with Ben Shapiro on these same subjects. As a candidate, Donald Trump captured the same mood in a roundabout way, through is hardline stances on immigration, his pledges to restore manufacturing industries, and his efforts to attack the opiate crisis plaguing those areas of the country. Yang goes a step further with his pledge to tackle the opiate crisis even to the point of prosecuting pharmaceutical executives responsible.

Trump ran on a platform of “only me.” Repeatedly he would famously tell us that “only he” could fix any host of problems which have plagued the country for decades. Beyond the appointment of judges, he’s arguably done little toward capturing the nostalgia behind “Making America Great Again.” At this point in Trump’s presidency, especially, there’s a felt sense that the country is moving away from that vision regardless of who is elected.

As is well understood, Trump relied upon white American support and frustrations in order to coast his way to narrow success. What makes Yang a unique outlier on the left is that he’s neededly pointed out that among white Americans deaths now outnumber births - a clear marker of familial decline. A widespread notion exists in the brainy establishment ranks of Republicans and libertarians that so long as we have cheap hamburgers and electronics, American communities can just be replaced by new immigrants. That core communities of Americans can vanish in the span of a few decades, an unprecedented development in this country, without vast social ramifications--such as the ones we’re already witnessing. The reasons these events are unfolding are incredibly complex and can be traced to no one development, but it can be said that this isn’t a viable long-term solution. These problems can potentially be addressed through tailored incentive structures to promote family creation, such as those which have been promoted by Hungary and Israel. Trump has spent no time devoted to this subject for some apparent reason, as though it is without dignity to address any subset of Americans experiencing the evaporation of their communities. For this reason, some of Trump’s previously most devoted followers are questioning their support of someone who looks a lot more like George W. Bush than 2015 Donald Trump. This became glaringly obvious after the Trump administration’s abject failure on his signature issue, as February marked a 12 year high for illegal immigration.

Because of a collective sense of social disintegration and nihilism among the Trump base, the overall rationale behind the shift to Yang simply boils down to this: if the country will veer in that direction anyway, we may as well strive to not spend our days in economic insecurity--especially if your political views lean right, which can literally cost you your job. But it isn’t just economic concerns that has drawn support to Yang from the right. In response to a rising tide of technological censorship, President Donald Trump, who far-leftists have called to be banned on many social media platforms--including Twitter-- is fundamentally uninterested in addressing this issue, only advising fellow Republicans to “be good.” In stark contrast, Andrew Yang has gone as far to say that social media conglomerates should be trust-busted for their mass-censorship campaigns. Where you come down on that debate is besides the point: it’s obviously more favorable to conservatives who obviously face the brunt of censorship with no clear solution on the horizon.

It’s largely for these reasons that pointing to any one particular left wing policy listed on Yang’s website is viewed as irrelevant by his right wing supporters. If even under a firebrand Republican administration the country moves leftward, spending more than ever before, receiving more illegal immigrants than under Obama, and seeing more technological censorship, why should a candidate willing to tackle the issues of censorship and job displacement be written off?

To the people running the meme factories that have spurred the online appeal of Yang, Trump has failed to address these issues in any serious way, while Yang is openly positioning himself as the one to do it--with the previously mentioned $1000/mo “Freedom Dividend.”

Roughly speaking, our economy is divided into a few sectors: raw materials, manufacturing, and the service industry. Because America is a highly advanced economy, it’s the service industry which produces most of our economic output. Obviously, this has been unprecedentedly disruptive for communities that have historically relied upon the first two sectors. Libertarians cite these developments as being positive; after all, they say, that signifies that we don’t have to engage in grueling labor, and can instead focus on enjoying the fruit of that expanding economic pie. Materially, this is true. Regardless of this fact, you still have to earn those goods by generating economic value. If we're going to transition away from human labor at an unprecedented rate, we must find a new way to manage the social and economic costs that those displaced in a matter of years will inevitably bear the cost of.

You could argue, as many do compellingly, that predictions of massive human replacement by automation are grossly overestimated. After all, they point out, people have been displaced by all sort of innovations (usually pointed to is the horse and buggy), but that isn’t an argument against improving the country’s well-being as a whole. After all, people’s sense of purpose and meaning is in large part derived from jobs and the feeling that they’re providing for their families, not from how cheaply they can stream a tv show. And as many are quick to eject out of their mouths, the rise of automation does mean cheaper products and services, but what’s missed is the compromise that is made. The clear compromise is a country where new jobs that are created are, not only less cognitively accessible, but more isolated and temporary. Today, one in five jobs are held by a person under contract and within a decade, contractors and freelancers could make up half of the American workforce. As a matter of practical reality, the formation of local bonds, community, and camaraderie will always be put on the back burner in favor of market efficiency - the next temporary gig.

Being that the market itself is morally neutral, and instead merely a means of meeting consumer demand as efficiently as possible, the disintegration we are seeing manifested is a result of human choices as libertarians rush to point out. While it’s not the role of the state to block this, shaping the incentive structure in a way where it makes sense for average people to make choices that foster family and community would result in a healthier country. How that is addressed or implemented is a question that runs as deep as any.

What’s as difficult to address is the reality that jobs are becoming much, much more complex. One possible solution put forward to minimize these effects is that we can begin a massive job retraining program. But these already exist, and the results aren’t promising to say the least. This is a fact Andrew Yang addresses headlong, correctly citing that the TAA, a federal jobs retraining program, found that only 37% of program members were working in the field for which they were trained. That doesn’t paint an optimistic picture if libertarian predictions about the state of the economy in 15  years don’t pan out and it should certainly concern conservatives who allegedly prioritize the formation of families above all else.

More hardlined figures in this debate like Tucker Carlson suggest we halt automation entirely, which some could potentially view as far too heavy handed. Alternatively we can seek out a sophisticated answer to the most complex issues any society has had to rise to meet. If we’re to be freed from human labor through automation to make cheaper products, the consumers of those free markets have to have a means by which to pay for them. In other words, in an economy of humanless hyperproductivity, one can’t simply compete with machines.

A good thought experiment in favor of various disruptive and, on paper, terrible technological innovations is highlighted by the example a professor gave to his class. Asking, “if an invention were offered that would transform the economy and revolutionize economic efficiency, but in exchange we had to sacrifice 40,000 lives a year, would politicians permit it?” The resounding response of the class was “definitely not.” The professor then informed them that we do, and it is, of course, the automobile.

If you are someone who is inclined to reject the forward trajectory of industry, what you might take from this is a criticism of cars. What that presents is the classic observation by French economist Frederic Bastiat from his essay “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.” What we see are the 40,000 deaths directly taken in consequence of automobiles; what are not seen and cannot be calculated are the untold number of lives saved from the safe and quick transportation of services such as medicine, emergency medical responses, and essential goods more broadly.

Knowing where and how to draw this line will be an eternal problem for humanity, but in the coming decades it will be like no time before in human history as the rate of technological change goes parabolic. Even if flawed, it’s a conversation that no candidate is having, and Andrew Yang is a positive inclusion in the culture and Democratic debates if not for any other reason than this. Even further, as a strong advocate for vocational schools, Yang may serve as a voice of reason in a party that wants to drive every American through college to receive useless degrees.

Unfortunately, far too many in the establishmentarian and libertarian wings of the GOP look at any non-conventional solution to the issue of cognitive stratification with shock and dismay. Andrew Yang frequently and correctly cites Chicago School Economist and libertarian sweetheart Milton Friedman  as a proponent of a UBI, as well as numerous founding fathers in their advocacy of a form of it. Self-identified libertarian scholar, Charles Murray is a vocal supporter of it, dedicating an entire book on the subject, titled “In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State.”

That subtitle, “A Plan to Replace the Welfare State”, is where some of its support from the right comes. It’s for this reason that the reflexive libertarian gesticulation that this is an example of “socialism!” doesn’t hold water and is simply inadequate. In theory, people like Friedman and Murray endorse the UBI or its related proposal, a negative income tax, as a means of shifting entitlements that leave vulnerable people dependent on the state to a form of independence.

There are a variety of problems associated with this argument. Even if the numbers added up (a contested subject), it misses the fact that conservatives rightly recognize: people derive their primary source of meaning from gainful and rewarding employment. The counterargument to this reality is that at $1k/mo you’d still be beneath the poverty line, which wouldn’t remove the incentive to work. It’s a fascinating thought experiment, at a minimum, and that’s why so many on the right on the wide plane of social media have become Yang-curious.

Even assuming the math worked out, the appeal of Yang transcends his policy prescriptions. At least $1000 is an entertaining thought experiment; what would ensue if people were totally freed from scarcity--the problem economics is trying to answer in the first place? It could solve a number of social issues such as exploitative relationships or ease the transition from an unsatisfying job to another one. But it doesn’t answer many, many more, such as the spiritual malaise this country is undergoing that Yang understands. He identifies the pervasive depression and disillusionment of the youth. That harkening to a brighter, more optimistic past is what offered a lot of young people a reprieve in Make America Great Again, whatever it is that you believe it signifies. At a minimum it is a rebuke of the factual reality of social suicide we’re seeing spike rapidly. In the last few decades, there has been a lot of concern over the societal “Death of the West” as Patrick Buchanan’s book and Jonah Goldberg’s “Suicide of the West” label it respectively.

In some cases you can judge a book by its cover. Though Trump and Yang stand in stark contrast to each other philosophically, to their supporters they read the writing on the wall, even as figures and outlets like Human Progress, Steven Pinker, and Ben Shapiro insist upon impotently reminding us of how optimistic we should be as our countrymen sink deeper and deeper into a spiritual and, increasingly literal, suicide.